One of the great bipartisan friendships of British politics was that between Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill. Their bond had its origin on the First World War battlefield at Gallipoli. Major Attlee was on the front line while Churchill was one of those whose commands made such a mess. Yet Attlee maintained all his life that Churchill’s strategic decision at Gallipoli had been wise; the orders had gone awry in their execution. Churchill appreciated Major Attlee’s support for the rest of his life.
Attlee and Churchill were the dominant figures of an era in which it was routine for politicians to have served in the military. From Churchill until 1979, every premier – apart from Alec Douglas-Home, who was debarred by illness, and Harold Wilson, who spent the war in Whitehall with William Beveridge – had been in the military, alongside hundreds of MPs. Ted Heath’s war experience made him a fervent supporter of European unification. Jim Callaghan, as a member of the Royal Navy, chose to campaign in uniform during the 1945 election.
Recent tours of duty in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a new cadre of the soldier-politician. Tom Tugendhat, who made a notable speech during the debate on Afghanistan in the House of Commons on 18 August, served in the Territorial Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Johnny Mercer was the captain of a commando regiment. Adam Holloway, a captain in the Grenadier Guards, claims that he liberated one of Saddam Hussein’s lavatory brushes from his palace in Baghdad. On the Labour side, Dan Jarvis had a distinguished career as a paratrooper and brought together an elite unit of Afghans to take on the Taliban.
There are many nations in which the general as politician is commonplace. In Haiti, El Salvador and Pakistan, for example, politics is a military parade. Greece and Spain have regularly fallen to the rule of the generals. But the democracies too have often been seduced. Charles de Gaulle used his military authority to become, in effect, the embodiment of his country. Out of the 46 men who have served as US president, 29 previously served in the military. In 1952 General Dwight D Eisenhower won the presidential election despite his lack of political experience; military expertise was also an important part of the appeal of John F Kennedy, Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Britain, by contrast, has only had two prime ministers who have been army generals: Lord Shelburne, who became prime minister in 1782, and the Duke of Wellington, who became prime minister in 1834. Between Wellington and Churchill in 1940, there was no prime minister who had served in the armed forces. The key point is whether the current batch of soldier-politicians can live up to the hopes being invested in them. The likelihood is that they can’t because politics is not, in the end, really war by other means.
The case for the soldier-politician is that they speak the language of patriotism and duty. The soldier who has served in combat might also bridge the gap between the elite and the people. Anthony Eden attributed his conversion to One Nation Conservatism to his recognition, in the fields of Flanders, that distinctions between the subalterns and the men were meaningless. In 1984 Harold Macmillan used a speech in the House of Lords to commend the striking miners as “the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in”.
It is plausible, too, that military life fosters a different political sensibility. John McCain believed that Vietnam killed any attraction he might have had to dogma. Certainly, friendships among the military set – between Tugendhat and Jarvis, for example – are tight across party lines. But this argument will only carry so far. Although the former soldiers are eloquent voices for veterans suffering traumatic stress or for defence spending to be maintained at the Nato target of 2 per cent of GDP, it does not follow that they will rise through the ranks. Success in politics ultimately rests on being good at politics. For every Tugendhat there will be an Eric Joyce, a former soldier and Labour MP for Falkirk whose demise began the chain of events that brought Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party.
The claim that a former soldier will be a better politician than a civilian is an impressive form of the common fallacy that politics would be better if only the business executives took over. It is another disguise for the argument that the problem with politics is that it is too professional. This has never been true. The military heroes of yesterday were, in truth, career politicians enlisted by necessity. Denis Healey went to work for the Labour Party after graduating from Oxford University but conscription during the Second World War took him to the beach at Anzio. The First and Second World Wars gave a political generation the lustre of a life outside politics. But they were conscripts, not soldiers as such.
Indeed, there is tentative evidence that the appeal of war has waned. In 1992 the electoral strategist James Carville released Bill Clinton’s dodge-drafting letter on the assumption that it would help his man. Meanwhile three Vietnam veterans – Al Gore, John Kerry and McCain – have lost the presidential race, and Donald Trump actively bragged about his ingenuity in avoiding the war that went wrong.
And here is a crucial point. The popularity of service has a relationship with the war fought. Second World War veterans carried with them the aura of a just war successfully won. Neither justice nor victory hang over the soldiers of our day. With all due deference to their expertise in matters of war – on which the House of Commons is lucky to call – the political future of the soldiers rests not on whether they can recall the virtues of their old trade, but on whether they can master the craft of their new one.